Wednesday, August 11, 2010
Former Senator Ted Stevens died yesterday in a plane crash -- the traditional death of real Alaskans. Stevens, aka, Uncle Ted, and Senator-for-Life made Alaska what it is today: the site of the largest per capita federal spending in the country. He did this by shamelessly demanding more huge, expensive, and often ludicrous pork than anyone else in the US Senate. No small feat. As his Senate seniority grew, so grew the pork pie. This endeared him to Alaskans in such a way that even though a merciless and smelly Federal ethics and corruption trial in the midst of an election year did cost him his Senate seat, it was a squeaker. But Senator Stevens also secured the loyalty of Alaskans by taking care of them. Not just with bridges, airports and radar installations. But with passport problems, tardy social security checks, and tributes. He was famous for his angry outbursts on the Senate floor, but that was the only place he did that. He was a warm, sharp, approachable politician when on his home turf. Almost everyone who's lived in Alaska for more than a few years, regardless of their political views, has a happy story about Uncle Ted. Here's mine.
I was on my first book's publicity tour in the fall of 1985 -- a complete and beer-soaked rube with a hardback tucked under my arm and one foot back in Alaska and a small construction business. I still had roofing tar jammed under my fingernails as I signed books in Boston, New York, Philadelphia. On the way to Washington DC I got word that Senator Stevens was planning a reception for me at the Capitol. To put this in perspective take the meager, oddball celebrity I have today and divide it by 162. In the firmament of American stardom I was one dim blink of a passing satellite. And a United States Senator was throwing me a party.
He'd invited the Washington press corps and many of them came to the ornate room in the old Capitol Building, not because of me, but because he'd invited them. I was ignorant at the time of the prominence of most of them, but I do recall chatting with James Fallows for a few minutes at the bar. The most comfortable conversation I had was with the bartender himself who was embarrassed and actually said to me, "You should go talk to someone else." Then the Senator swept in.
I was meeting him for the first time, but Stevens put his arm around me like we were old war buddies. He introduced me at length and without notes to the assembled press and asked if I'd read something from my book. After I'd read a couple of things, the Senator worked the room with me at his side. He didn't stay long and the party broke up soon after he left, but the glow of that day remains even now.
I disagreed often, if not always, with Stevens' policy positions but I voted for him every six years and would have the last time too were I still an Alaska voter. I owed him that. A lot of Alaskans who disagreed with him felt the same way. However the world may remember him otherwise, Ted Stevens was a first rate politician and exactly right for the time and the place in which he lived.
Ted Stevens' death in a plane crash, for all its tragedy, is the perfect ending to his story. Had I thought of it I would even have wished it for him. Rest in peace, Uncle Ted. And thanks again.